How Can ‘Hope’ Help Vulnerable Students Succeed?

Middle school bus shots.Poverty has a firm grip on children in the United States—nearly half of the nation’s public school students are living in adverse conditions. The causes of poverty are as varied as they are complex, influencing a child’s potential to succeed academically and their chances of overcoming health, social and economic barriers.

But adverse circumstances don’t have to eclipse the lives of economically disadvantaged children. Many can and do make it and thrive. In her book, Fostering Resilience and Well-Being in Children and Families in Poverty: Why Hope Still Matters, Valerie Maholmes, Ph.D. examines how optimism and determination can play an important role in creating more positive academic outcomes.

Schools in low-income communities need to be well-resourced and every student should have access to great teachers and an enriching curriculum. These critical factors can help hope and resilience flourish, explains Maholmes, a former researcher at the Yale Child Study Center and current chief of the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Maholmes recently spoke with NEA Today about her research and how educators can create a learning environment in which hope thrives.

Why explore the power of hope, especially in the lives of those who are sometimes perceived as hopeless?

Valerie Maholmes: In the midst of the economic downturn I started thinking about how inspired so many people were by President Obama’s message of hope. Those thoughts stuck with me. Then I began to talk with family and friends who have overcome adversities and found that hope was a common thread. That’s when I started to do the research, looking at the theory of hope and positive psychology literature to understand what hope means for children and families in poverty.

Dr. Valerie Maholmes

Dr. Valerie Maholmes

Where did that interest come from?

VM: My parents gave me the best education in the world—they took in foster children when we were little. I got to see firsthand the parent-child relationship dynamic and what it meant for these kids. It took a lot of work to convince these children that they were loved and that we weren’t going to throw them away. And we saw the results. Those experiences shaped my world view and my career.

Professionally, I’ve been trying to answer questions of why these disparities exist—why do some kids perform well in school and others don’t, how is it that kids who come from the same community and do really well and overcome challenges and others succumb to negative outcomes that are associated with poverty?

Why was it important to look now at hope and education?

VM: One reason I chose to review the literature on hope and resilience is to dispel the notion that if children can’t read by grade four, they are no longer able to learn or read. People have the capacity for lifelong-learning. To date, research has largely focused on deficits and negative outcomes of children in poverty. As the neuroscience continues to unfold, I’m really hopeful that we will find opportunities to enhance a child’s ability to learn despite early adversity. It will be harder and surely more expensive, if we as a society do not figure out how we can help these kids reach their optimal level.

 With that said, do you think that biases about poor children in general and in particular their ability to learn, follows them into the classroom?

VM: Certainly, because biases and pre-conceived notions about a host of things are a part of human nature. But we don’t want to assume that people’s biases will create discontinuity between the home and school. I think that those who go into teaching, especially early career teachers, are so excited about having the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. I think the power of what they actually have is hope for these kids. It’s not the pie-in-the sky hope, but it’s the combination of their expertise as teachers and the expectations that they have for kids. For those educators who may not be trained to work with kids who have different types of learning abilities or who come from poor or adverse backgrounds, we need to figure out ways to help them see through a developmental lens.

James Comer, M.D., professor of child psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, started the school development program in 1968, which focused on helping schools identify family strengths and interventions based on them. That means being able to see where parents can make a difference in a child’s life and seeing the child as a whole individual.

What does that kind of engagement look like for parents and educators?

hoperesilienceVM: Part of a teacher’s training includes understanding that you’re not just teaching that child in the classroom. Children bring with them all of their family experiences and dynamics, all things that influence how they approach the learning environment. While a lot of schools offer parent involvement training and programs beyond the traditional PTA, but there are special challenges that come when parents and families are living in adverse circumstances. Their lives are so complex and unstable. Many of these families move a lot. A teacher may start a relationship with them and the next time they try to connect with that family they may be at a different address or they may no longer have a phone. When these things happen, it’s hard sometimes for a teacher to sustain engagement, especially given everything else that they have to do.

But schools need to figure out ways to stay engaged and recognize that these families have very, very complex challenges to overcome just for their child to stay in school or to remain in a particular school district. It has to be a part of teachers’ understanding that family involvement is as much a part of their job as instruction and pedagogy. I know that we ask a lot of teachers, but if we are going to help close these gaps, we can’t exclude that part of the role.

What did the parents you interviewed reveal about hope and their challenges?

VM: The families taught me that despite what their lives may look like, they really have a lot to bring to the table to help their children do well; not just in school but in life. If we can find out what kind of assets families have, we can begin to build on those strengths and see families and parents not as liabilities to their children’s development and learning, but as resources.

You focus on the importance that hope and resilience play in the education of children living in poverty, but what should educators also understand about the role of neuroscience in the process?

VM: Every child can learn and every child can succeed. It requires a different level of effort for different children; that’s what the brain science teaches us. Since the 90s, there has been an effort to connect pedagogy with neuroscience. When we as teachers and adults shine the light on their capacities and capabilities, kids rise to the occasion. Opportunities for teachers to connect these two disciplines of science—pedagogy and neuroscience—can open up many opportunities for kids and even shape new learning modalities that will allow them to be successful.

What are some important insights and takeaways from the book for educators?

VM: It’s that children really want to know that teachers believe in them and aren’t counting them out just because they come from a certain neighborhood or because their families are poor. It’s up to us to help young people see who they can be and know that there is more to life beyond the block that they live on. These hope-promoting concepts give children a chance to conceive of and aim for a different future.